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History of Sandusky. Part 1: The Johnston years

The Sandusky estate was established in 1808 by 38 year-old Charles Johnston, the third son of Scottish emigrant Peter Johnston. Charles grew up in Prince Edward County at the Johnston family home named “Longwood.” Peter Johnston donated 100 acres for the establishment of Hamden-Sydney College. In 1949 another college, the State Teachers College, renamed itself Longwood University after the Johnston estate.

In his late teens Charles began clerking for a Mr. John May of Petersburg, Virginia. It was during his employment with May that he experienced a life-changing event which provided the name for Johnston’s future home in Campbell County, Virginia. In 1790 May and Johnston organized a journey to Kentucky to survey some lands owned by May. The previous year they traveled by land however this time they decided to use the Ohio River. Along the way they were attacked 40 odd hostile Indians, a mix of Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Cherokee. Two of the group were killed outright and the remainder taken prisoner. For several weeks Johnston was trundled by his captors across the Ohio Territory until finally reaching a small trading village in Sandusky. A French trader took pity on Johnston and purchased him from bondage for the price of “600 silver broaches.” Johnston received his freedom on his 21st birthday, about one month from the day of his capture. After a long journey through the Great Lakes and down the eastern seaboard, Johnston returned to his home in Virginia. During the journey he stopped in New York City where he was interviewed by President George Washington and made a deposition about his capture and captivity before Secretary of War Henry Knox.

In 1802, Johnston resided in Richmond, Virginia, where he married Letitia Pickett and fathered three children. He worked as a merchant for the firm Pickett, Pollard, and Johnston. Following the death of his wife he left Richmond for Campbell County and in 1808 married Elizabeth Steptoe, the daughter of Bedford County clerk James Steptoe. That year he oversaw the construction of a two-story Federal style house which he named “Sandusky.”

Johnston’s years at Sandusky were prosperous in many ways. In addition to his three children from his first marriage he fathered seven children with his wife Elizabeth and adopted his deceased brother’s three children. This large household is no doubt the reason he added a room on the back of Sandusky, a room that was used as a nursery and well as separate two room building used as an office and school room. As a businessman and community leader Johnston’s star rose. He was a merchant, stockbroker, and founder of the first bank in Lynchburg. At some point he owned a tavern, kitchen, stable, and laundry in downtown Lynchburg. In 1815 Johnston attended a dinner held for Andrew Jackson who was passing through Lynchburg. A number of toasts were made including one by Johnston.

One of Johnston's neighbors was Thomas Jefferson who established a home nearby at "Poplar Forest." Johnston handled many of Jefferson’s tobacco transactions and invited him to dine at Sandusky in 1817. Johnston’s sister-in-law, Francis Steptoe Langhorne, reported that “Mr. Johnston intends having a big dinner tomorrow Mr. Jefferson is to be of the party and to dine on venison at least that is a dish they seem to admire most.”

A large venture in Botetourt County proved to be Johnston’s downfall however. Johnston was one of a dozen investors in a land development deal. A tobacco town was planned complete with houses for workers, stores, shops, facilities for drying and packing tobacco. Before it could come to fruition the Great Panic of 1819 wiped out Johnston’s assets and he was forced to sell Sandusky. He moved to Lynchburg for a year and then moved to his tract of land in Botetourt County, the site of the failed development project. He opened and operated a hotel and spa there until his death in 1833. Before his death he wrote a memoir about his Indian captivity entitled "A Narrative of the Incidents Attending Capture, Detention, and Ransom of Charles Johnston of Botetourt County.” President James Madison helped to fund the printing of Johnston's book. Years after his death Johnston's hotel became a college which grew into present day Hollins University.

To purchase a copy of Johnston's memoir click here

Coming next, Part 2: The Otey years

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